Occupy Wall Street Must Learn That We Are What We Buy

The core problem behind inequality is an economy driven by hyper-consumption.

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Louis René Beres is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law and is a professor at Purdue University.

Viscerally, Occupy Wall Street targets the structural corruption of certain American and global institutions, both economic and political. To be sure, economics and politics remain starkly interpenetrating. Usually, whatever happens in either one of these seemingly discrete realms, more or less substantially impacts the other.

Still, if Occupy supporters were to look meaningfully behind the news, beyond the ritualized economic and political orthodoxies, they could uncover something vitally important and under-examined. The genuinely core problem of economic weakness and inequality, they would discover, is not fiscal, but human.

Retail sales comprise an overwhelmingly large fraction of GDP. This is not newsworthy. But, by simple deduction, Wall Street's volatility and fragility are ultimately the product of a society that most desperately requires hyper-consumption. Below the tangible surface of timeless and ubiquitous manipulations, our underlying market difficulties are rooted in utter dependence upon Main Street's craving for goods. From the expert standpoint of any needed economic recovery, the more insistent this choreographed craving, the "better."

[See pictures of Occupy Wall Street protests.]

We are what we buy. There is nothing controversial about this assertion. Adam Smith and Thorstein Veblen, among others, made it an integral part of their respective economic theories.

Nor is it in any way a uniquely American condition. The true and unacknowledged generic or universal problem is that in any society where one's perceived value as a person is determined by observable consumption, the derivative economy is necessarily built upon sand.

This is not what we hear from the experts, least of all from the learned economists, the bankers, or the quick-thinking corporate chiefs. After all, it is assuredly not their task to inquire beyond pleasingly hard, measurable, and quotable fiscal calculations. Still, if we should look more closely, it would become plain that we and the Occupy Wall Street movement have as much to learn about market crises and asymmetries from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, as from Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes.

Until we can finally get a handle on the insatiable public need for more and more things, on the unceasing search for shiny goods that can seemingly validate us as persons of merit, our economic problems will not go away. And even if we could somehow "fix" these current problems by further encouraging contrived consumption, exactly what sort of society would we be sustaining?

What kind of economy and society must rely on crude coaxing and engineered purchasing to sustain its life-saving buoyancy? In the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke prophetically of "self-reliance." Already, long ago, the American transcendentalist thinker had fully understood that a foolish "reliance upon property" was actually the result of "a want of self-reliance."

[Read the U.S. News interview with James Livingston, author of Against Thrift.]

Today, living insecurely amid a humiliating barrage of advertising jingles, delirious collectivism, and embarrassingly empty witticisms, the apprehensive American and counterparts elsewhere sorely want to project a "correct" image.

In the end, each tentative claim to self-worth must be founded upon having the "right stuff." In the end, it is always about possessing an enviable cornucopia of all the "right things." In the end, hyper-consumption is never really about greed; rather, it is about the enhanced image of personal importance that can presumably be conferred by glamorous houses, cars, and electronic toys.

The demeaning consumer message of our mass society is everywhere, even in the universities. Here, where the Western canon has been supplanted by reality shows, mimicry and repetition now define academic "excellence." Today, almost all higher education in America has become fiercely-commercial, proudly anti-intellectual, and openly vocational, obsequiously dumbed-down by faculties who are running scared from no-longer literate university administrations.

Corrected 02/16/2012: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Thorstein Veblen.